Tag Archives: Kurosawa Akira

Kurosawa #1: Sugata Sanshiro II (Japan, 1945)

The original poster (from Wiki Commons)

This is the earliest Kurosawa I’ve managed to acquire (on a Hong Kong DVD). The picture quality isn’t too bad but the sound is poor and the English subtitles very variable and sometimes incomprehensible. It was Kurosawa’s third film overall, made in 1944 but released only three months before the Japanese surrender – at the same time as the writer-director got married – when cinemas in Tokyo were being bombed.

This sequel to Kurosawa’s first feature in 1943, that had been a hit for PCL/Toho, is generally acknowledged to be the director’s least successful film. Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (2000) suggests that is “least satisfying artistically and perhaps most overtly propagandistic”. It’s difficult to argue with either observation. But there are several interesting points to explore.

The story focuses on Sugata, a martial arts student training to be a master in a school known as ‘the Station’. The school’s master is said by some commentators to be based on Kanō Jigorō (the man associated with the transformation of traditional jujitsu or unarmed combat into the formal sport of ‘judo’). The action is set in the 1880s in Tokyo/Yokahama. Sugata (Fujita Susumu) is a strong but rather wayward young man who in the first film must learn from his master that there will always be someone physically stronger and that a successful fighter will use intelligence as well as strength. He is thus able to defeat a dangerous enemy in combat. The other main plot point is that Sugata turns down the love of a young woman in order to pursue his studies.

In his autobiography, Kurosawa makes plain that he undertook making the sequel only because he was ordered to do so by Toho and that he needed the money. (He claims that he was paid around $3000 – ¥150 – for the script and direction, but that he spent much of this on location.) The fact that his heart wasn’t in it perhaps explains why some of the action sequences suffer badly in comparison with the earlier film which had been praised for the innovative techniques used on what was otherwise a conventional story. The other main problem with the film is that it looks as though much of the original script never made it into the final film – perhaps simply because the budget was so low and production generally was difficult in Japan in 1944. Certainly the attempt to carry on the relationship with the lover spurned in the first film seems perfunctory at best. Yoshimoto lists the film at 82 minutes – my DVD says 81 minutes, i.e. about 79 mins at film speed.

Part of the sequence when Sugata watches the audience at the first fight between two Americans

However, there are moments in the film where Kurosawa’s ability to utilise a range of filmic techniques becomes evident. Two of these are used in sequences now taken to be ‘propagandistic’. The story of the sequel repeats the original formula. Sugata is still struggling with his temper and the challenges that a martial arts would-be master must face. At the beginning of the film he rescues a rickshaw runner from being beaten by an American sailor and is later inveigled into watching and then participating in a contest with an American boxing champion. During these fights the baying crowd of Europeans at the American embassy is shown in a distinctively Eisensteinian montage of close-ups of European faces as a Japanese is defeated. What is puzzling here is how Toho found so many Europeans as extras in 1944. An IMDB posting suggests that they were neutrals (Turkish, Swedish?). Certainly these crowd scenes are more striking than what is actually happening in the ring – which is partly the point, since the action is not ‘worthy’ of being ‘entertaining’ and Sugata tries to stop the first contest because it is derogatory towards the ‘Japanese arts’. The second example is more subtle but relates to the first.

The boxing ring from Sugata's viewpoint

Sugata watches from the exit doors of the American embassy . . .

. . . while the spectators enjoy the defeat of the Japanese – and the degradation of 'Japanese arts'

The martial arts master lays down three rules in his school – no drinking in the dojo (the school’s fighting arena), no fighting without the master’s permission and no fighting as entertainment. Fighting the American without permission breaks two rules and Sugata in his despair breaks rule three. When the master arrives in the dojo, he doesn’t mention the discarded sake jug on the floor, but then proceeds to play a game of ‘keepy-uppy’ – manipulating the jug with his foot, tossing it and turning it in order to demonstrate moves. Kurosawa uses fast-cutting between the master’s dancing feet and Sugata’s desperate looks to convey a subtle message. Yoshimoto suggests that this is a propaganda message in which a warrior is given permission to fight, not for his own glory but for the good of the whole community (i.e. the school in the story, Japan in 1944). Kurosawa himself tells us in his autobiography that one of the reasons that he was keen to marry in 1945 was to experience marriage before the ‘death of 100 million’ expected to take place if Japan surrendered.

The younger Higaki brothers. Genzaburo with wig and make-up is in the rear.

The sake jug sequence is matched by another scene in which the transformation of a student is shown through a sequence of ‘lap-dissolves’ working as a time-lapse image, a technique used at least twice more in the film. But such scenes only show up other desultory scenes shot in MLS/LS against painted backdrops. However one feature of the story’s other main narrative strand deserves mention. This involves the appearance of the two younger brothers of the man (Higaki) who was defeated by Sugata in the first film. The younger of the two brothers is depicted as mentally unbalanced and Kurosawa decided to utilise aspects of noh theatre in his portrayal. The actor was made up with a white face and dark (red) lips and given a long-haired wig and a branch of bamboo grass to carry (another symbol). He moves in repeated quick runs and lurches and the overall effect is at once comical and disturbing. This use of noh devices recurs in several later films. (In a Criterion essay, Stephen Prince suggests that his performance also references epilepsy which Kurosawa himself had suffered.) The two brothers are seeking revenge and they pose a challenge to the school with their more brutal karate form of martial arts. (As I understand it, judo depends on feints, throws and ‘locks’, whereas karate includes strikes with the hands and feet.)

The main theme of the film is what interested Kurosawa most – the master-apprentice relationship and the sense of the younger man learning from experience. This is picked up in the revenge plot when the original Higaki brother returns, now a frail and ill man, but one who recognises what he has learned through his fighting with Sugata.

Fujita Susumu went on to appear in later Kurosawa films and became a well-known actor in Japanese Cinema. Mori Masayuki who appears in a minor role as one of the other students went on to become a major player with Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Ichikawa.

Reference: Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro, Kurosawa, Duke University Press, 2000)

The Kurosawa Centenary in 2010

The international film community celebrates the centenary of important directors on a regular basis, but only a handful of such celebrations reach a wider audience. This year’s major subject is Kurosawa Akira (born 23 March 1910), who could reasonably claim to be the first globally acknowledged ‘master of cinema’ during the 1950s and early 1960s. In a long film career of over 50 years he directed 30 features – all of which have been remembered and many of which have been screened again somewhere this year – not least on home DVD systems. Our own mini-season of Kurosawa films on the big screen kicks off in Bradford towards the end of August. There will be just five films with possibly one or two others elsewhere in the region, so I’m hoping we can blog on a few more and develop some ideas.

There are a number of reasons why Kurosawa remains important:

1. His career spanned several key periods in both Japanese and global film history. He began work in 1936 under a form of apprenticeship in the Japanese studio system, gradually developed an autonomous position within Toho, established his own company and worked co-operatively with other directors, flirted with Hollywood and became in effect a global film producer.

2. His career also spanned momentous changes in the social, economic and political history of Japan – crucial conjunctural events in his filmmaking experiences.

3. With education and interests that covered both traditional Japanese cultural achievements and the diversity of influences from elsewhere in Asia, Europe and North America, Kurosawa became the centre of problematic debates about his ‘most Western’ status amongst Japanese critics.

4. Outside Japan, Kurosawa joined Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Satyajit Ray, Andrjez Wajda and a few others as central figures in the humanist art cinema of the 1950s which dominated the new international film market.

5. Like John Ford, the American director he so admired, Kurosawa had his own stock company dominated by two very different actors, Shimura Takashi and Mifune Toshiro.

6. Recently some critics have identified a homo-eroticism in many of Kurosawa’s films and questions have been raised about the lack of major female characters in his films – certainly in comparison with other ‘Japanese masters’ such as Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse.

All too often, Kurosawa is tagged as an action director and associated with the ‘samurai movie’. Although he certainly made several important historical films with samurai warriors in central roles, he also made several important ‘contemporary films’ and in so doing, displayed a wide knowledge of film styles and aesthetics, both Japanese and Western. We’ll attempt to range across Kurosawa’s whole output.

Kagemusha (Japan 1980)

Perhaps the best known of Japanese film directors outside of Japan, Kurosawa was the first to gain international recognition for Japanese cinema with Rashomon in 1950. This film, like Seven Samurai (1954), Yojimbo (1961) and The Hidden Fortress (1958), was remade in the West. Kurosawa himself also adapted Western authors, especially Shakespeare (Macbeth, King Lear and Hamlet) but also Dostoyevsky and Gorky as well as popular authors such as Ed McBain/Evan Hunter. This connection and his later work abroad led to Kurosawa’s title as ‘most western’ Japanese director. Internationally, his profile is still very high, partly because his big supporters in the West included the ‘movie brats’, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola who helped to make the production of Kagemusha possible by gaining for it an American distribution deal.

It isn’t straightforward to pin down a particular style or thematic in Kurosawa’s work. He began making films in the Japanese studio system in 1943 and through his major period of production in the 1950s and 1960s he made both contemporary and historical dramas. His heroes in these films (and they were primarily masculine-centred films) were often engaged in some form of spiritual struggle, sometimes related to their perceptions of themselves as figures in power and sometimes concerned with obsessions or quests. In the comic moments of his samurai films, the power relationship between warlords and isolated peasants or single warriors lies at the centre of the action and this is perhaps one of the attractions of the films for western audiences.

Kurosawa’s visual style in his action films was based on dramatic images and a distinctive editing style. The natural world can become a terrifying place in some of Kurosawa’s films and he was very successful at using wind, rain, clouds and mist to create atmosphere in films such as Throne of Blood (i.e. the representation of Burnham Wood on its way to Dunsinane in this version of Macbeth).

In terms of editing, Kurosawa is seen as the heir to Eisenstein and the impact of a film like Seven Samurai upon Hollywood filmmakers was enormous. The most obvious disciple of Kurosawa was Sam Peckinpah, who strove to make a Western using techniques like slow-motion in the action scenes. The Wild Bunch (1969) was the result of Peckinpah’s obsession, both thematically and in the final battle scene, to make a samurai movie in Hollywood. The direct linkage between samurai warrior and the gunfighter hero of the American western in the reception of Kurosawa’s work is confirmed for some commentators by Kurosawa’s own evident interest in John Ford as the American director to admire. There are certainly ways in which Kagemusha can be compared to John Ford’s cavalry films of the late 1940s.

The Eisenstein reference points to Kurosawa as developing an approach to cinema which emphasises the possibility of dialectical montage – the idea that meaning can be produced by juxtaposing images and sequences which ‘clash’ and thereby set up connections. The ‘shot change’ in this case is not ‘invisible’ as it is in many Hollywood films nor does it suggest the ‘flow’ from scene to scene which can be seen in Mizoguchi’s films. Instead of Mizoguchi’s dissolve, Kurosawa has at different times tended to use the ‘wipe’ – perhaps the most obvious shot change or transition. His films would often be edited so that long periods of relatively static interplay between characters (shot in front-on tableau style) are interrupted by dramatic action. A similar opposition could be made between shots or scenes in long shot intercut with large close-ups. If Mizoguchi’s work was characterised by the unrolling picture scroll, Kurosawa’s work tended to be experienced as the build-up of tension that is released in an explosion of action.


Kurosawa made only two films between Red Beard in 1965 and Kagemusha in 1980. Dodes’kaden in 1970, about the fantasies of slum-dwellers in Tokyo, had been poorly received in Japan and had bankrupted the co-operative of film directors who had produced it. In 1975 Kurosawa made Dersu Uzala in the Soviet Union about a hunter in Siberia. The Japanese film industry in the 1970s was in rapid decline, very much affected by television and the new video technology. The remaining film producers were involved with TV spin-offs and films that would work well on the small screen. It is amazing then, that Kurosawa was able to get one of the few remaining studios, Toho, to finance what was Japan’s most expensive feature to date (at only $6 million) and that it should be a 3 hour historical epic, directed by a 70 year-old.

Kagemusha was developed from the research for Kurosawa’s second Shakespeare adaptation, Ran (King Lear) which he finally made in 1985. Kagemusha is based on a major historical incident at the end of the 16th century when the powerful Takeda clan was vying for control of Japan. Two other clans, the Oda and the Tokugawa were combined in opposition to the Takeda and the Battle of Nagashiro, which saw the destruction of the Takeda army, was a significant moment in Japanese history. Nobunaga Oda was a modern, forward thinking man, who took control of Japan on Shingen Takeda’s death, only to be assassinated and eventually replaced by Ieyasu Tokugawa – who led Japan into a conservative period of more than two centuries of isolation from the west.

There are effectively three stories in Kagemusha – one about Shingen Takeda, one about the kagemusha or ‘shadow warrior’ (somebody who acts as the double of a warlord/clan leader) and one about the fate of the Takeda clan. This is not a film about the realities of war and its impact on society like Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari. Nor is it a ‘combat film’ about warriors or a political strategy film. The events are too mysterious for any of these and Richard Combs (1981) described it as a ghost story, the kagemusha is more shadow than warrior and the generals of the Takeda clan fail because they have lost their lord and wish to join him in death. This view suggests that although the film may look at times like a western epic historical film, it is at heart a Kurosawa ‘spiritual fantasy’.

Richard Combs (1981) ‘A Shaggy Ghost Story’ in Sight & Sound, Vol 50 No1
Frieda Freiberg (1998) ‘Japanese Cinema’ in The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, (eds) John Hill and Pam Church Gibson, Oxford: OUP
Tony Rayns (1981) ‘Tokyo Stories’ in Sight & Sound, Vol 50 No3
Kristin Thompson & David Bordwell (1993) Film History: An Introduction, New York: McGraw-Hill

Roy Stafford 9/3/00